Brahms: Symphony No. 4 in E minor, Opus 98

Symphony No. 4 in E minor, Opus 98

BORN: May 7, 1833. Hamburg
DIED: April 3, 1897. Vienna

COMPOSED: Brahms’s first mention of the Fourth Symphony is in a letter of August 19, 1884 to his publisher, Fritz Simrock. The work must have been completed about a year later at M├╝rzzuschlag

WORLD PREMIERE: October 25, 1885. Brahms conducted at Meiningen

US PREMIERE: December 11, 1886. Walter Damrosch conducted the New York Symphony

INSTRUMENTATION: 2 flutes and piccolo, 2 oboes, 2 clarinets, 2 bassoons and contrabassoon, 4 horns, 2 trumpets, 3 trombones, timpani, triangle, and strings. Piccolo and triangle appear in the 3rd movement only, contrabassoon in the 3rd and 4th movements only, and trombones only in the finale

DURATION: About 40 mins

Brahms’s Fourth Symphony was written in 1885 when he was fifty-two and starting to think of retirement and the time that remained. The symphony is a summation of its composer’s learning and technique, but for all its complexities it cuts as close to the heart as music can. One imagines that this is the work Brahms always wanted to write, a work in which form and function are balanced, in which technique opens new paths to expression, allowing him to voice his deepest convictions about all the unnamables that shape destiny. If any of Brahms’s music conveys a world view, this is it.

Listen to the first sighs in the strings. The voice is at once resigned and searching and its broad phrases are transformed for a moment into a nervous figure in the winds before growing into a lament of deep yearning. Throughout this movement, the nervous and the keening will alternate, and they fuse in the odd episode that sounds as though Brahms had entered the world of the tango, where dance steps offer a staccato accompaniment to long languid lines. By the end of the movement, all this has changed. A chapter that began with music saturated in regret has taken on resolve. The broad probing phrases of the opening bars are compressed into projectiles of energy, gathering momentum until they erupt in a cataclysmic climax.

The summons of a horn call begins the Andante moderato, outlining a figure that the winds take up, a pacing, tentative melody of closely spaced intervals, a melody that fails to range far from where it starts—we are still recovering from the upheaval in which the first movement ended. Soon, however, the possibilities of warmth in this theme are revealed, and the high strings enter to transform carefully ventured steps into a high-temperature flow of gloriously confident forward movement. Staccato bursts end this, but their energy dissipates quickly, and in their place comes one of Brahms’s most miraculously expansive creations. Even when those staccato jabs are later reprised in a more tortured form, the answer is the same. The opening movement was tragedy on an epic scale. The second movement is the response, offered in more human proportions. The great song at the heart of this Andante serves as a calmative to the stunned and anguished music that precedes it.

The aggressively upbeat scherzo seems initially out of place, given what comes immediately before and after, and yet it is utterly apt. We need some relief from the unremitting seriousness of the first two movements, and here Brahms supplies it. His humor, though, also has a crueler side. For this happy music will be followed by what, in 1885, was the most uncompromising, pessimistic conclusion ever heard in a symphony.

In his first two symphonies, Brahms had followed Beethoven’s model, ending each of those works in the affirmative. In his Third Symphony, he made an entirely novel ending, choosing to finish quietly. He followed that venture into new territory by going even farther in the Fourth Symphony. Here, in the finale, he wrote music not simply personal and not simply contemporary, but music that looked into the future, toward a century that would validate his apprehensions.

The irony is that Brahms’s vehicle for conveying this vision was an ancient musical form. Brahms the traditionalist was fascinated with the music of Bach and Handel. In his studies of the Baroque he familiarized himself with forms such as the passacaglia, a set of variations over a recurrent bass. He was especially taken with one he found in a cantata listed in the Bach catalogue as No. 150, a cantata whose very title lends meaning to this movement of the symphony, Nach Dir, Herr, verlanget mich—“I long to be near you, Lord.” Brahms was no conventional churchgoer, and though he may not have acknowledged any one deity as “Lord,” he had a sense of powers beyond the human. On the theme from Nach Dir, Herr—the eight chords that begin the finale—he builds his case: thirty-two variations that define a world. Brahms presents a constantly evolving drama, one that wastes no time covering ground already explored but that continues its explorations ever more deeply. He offers no happy ending—in fact, the end comes almost before we know it. As in life. And if we never know whether Brahms nears his “Lord,” whoever or whatever that might be, the answer is not important. The road is filled with detours and washed-out bridges, and we only hope we can negotiate the obstacles with grace. We may discard schedules and itineraries, but we don’t quite abandon the conviction that one day we may arrive at the destination. As we head there, we can be grateful for a traveling companion like Johannes Brahms.

—Larry Rothe

Larry Rothe, former editor of the San Francisco Symphony’s program book, is author of the SFS history Music for a City, Music for the World and co-author of For the Love of Music. Both books are available at the Symphony Store in Davies Symphony Hall.